Monday, February 15, 2010

The rich irony of changing Guam’s name to Guåhan

In his State of the Island address, Gov. Felix Camacho calls for returning Guam’s name to Guåhan.

The governor is right to seek this name change for the island. As he pointed out in his speech, Guam is the name set in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. It’s an artificial rebranding of the island and an exercise of colonial power.

But why is the governor making this recommendation now, at this particular point in Guam’s history?

The credit may belong to the people behind We Are Guåhan. It is a movement of many young and well educated residents passionately concerned about preserving the island’s cultural heritage and enriching it. They are questioning the very foundations of Guam’s direction and are unwilling to cede the island’s future to the military. There are nearly 2,000 people who have signed up as members of this group on Facebook and their numbers grow daily.

A cynic might suspect that the governor’s name change proposal is intended to diffuse or at least muddle one of We Are Guåhan’s most important assertions, that the build-up poses grave risks to island’s culture and identity. But Camacho may not be acting politically. He runs an island where one-out-of-four paychecks is government issued, either through the federal government or Guam’s government. Government spending is a pillar of the economy. In his speech, he argues: “Like many of you, I have raised my children here, and this is the place my grandchildren call home. We all want safer streets, an improved educational system, and a job market that allows our people to better support their families.” He doesn’t see economic alternatives for improving his children’s future but understands, nonetheless, the risk to his legacy and the island by backing the build-up, which he is attempting to mitigate by forcing the U.S. to extend the build-up timeline, improve its financial support and not dredge Apra Harbor. By recommending the island’s name change, the governor is arguing that the island can absorb the build-up as well as preserve its cultural identity. This is also known as the having your cake and eating it too argument.

In his speech, Camacho makes it clear that the build-up will have irrevocable impact.
“Life as we know it will be changed forever and we must ensure that we protect our environment, manage our limited resources, and preserve our culture.”
Later, in his remarks arguing for the island’s name change the governor says:
“As we quickly move in to this time of rapid growth and development that may forever change our island, our sense of identity, family, and place – it is important that we reaffirm our identity as a people.”
That’s a strong statement by the governor and a clear warning about what’s in store. The build-up “may forever change our island, our sense of identity, family and place ...” The governor is speaking from fact. Guam faces the risk of being gradually turned into a combination of island theme park and strip mall as a result of build-up, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (which I’ll show shortly) explains how.

The most enthusiastic supporters of Guam’s name change, ironically, will be the build-up supporters, including the U.S. government. (It would not surprise me if President Obama voices support for it during his visit next month.) Support for the name change will be, for build-up supporters, a means of demonstrating sensitivity to Guam’s cultural identity without having to make any concessions on the build-up. They may see support for Guåhan as a way to soften opposition.

But, conversely, build-up opponents might argue that if Guam is to change its name, Guåhan must also be a statement of the island’s future and its hopes, otherwise it’s a shallow rebranding and as artificial as the name Guam. The name change can’t be separated from the build-up, because the build-up undermines the culture, which is the very thing the name change seeks to reaffirm. The build-up's population increase will dilute the political power of the Chamorro population that may set it on a path that is less independent and increasingly deferential to U.S. wishes.

From the DEIS (Vol. 2, Chapt. 16):

Minoritization: Overall, the analysis indicates a sustained increase of approximately 33,500 people on Guam. Most of these people would have political rights as U.S. citizens. Therefore, their sustained presence could affect Chamorro culture in a number of ways, politically and culturally.
Firstly, a reduction in Chamorro voting power would impact certain political issues important to the Chamorro population. The incoming population would presumably be disinclined to vote for further moves away from the U.S., and this may affect the success or failure of future plebiscites involving Guam‘s political status. … Another goal of Chamorros has been political self determination, and for some Chamorros, total sovereignty.
While it is by no means certain that Guam residents would ever vote for full independence even if the military buildup does not take place, the addition of more non-Chamorro voters may make efforts at sovereignty less viable.
On a more purely cultural level, while the loss of the Chamorro language has been occurring for years on Guam, it may be accelerated with the military build-up.
Guam‘s integration into the larger English-speaking American society has been correlated with a loss of the use of Chamorro language in everyday life. A survey of Chamorro residents (Santos and Salas 2005) Guam and CNMI Military Relocation Draft EIS/OEIS (November 2009) found that 90% said the language was a source of pride, and students are learning to read and write the language with more comprehension than most of their elders. However, younger people are much less able to speak and comprehend the spoken language than their elders. Younger people speak the language primarily just with older relatives, not among their peers.
This loss of language skills is a common occurrence where a more dominant culture influences a minority culture.
In a recently published book by Martin Jacques When China Rules the World there is an excerpt from an interview with Hung Tze, a Taiwanese publisher, who addresses the importance of language:

Language is essential to form an idea – as long as you keep your unique language, you keep your way of creating ideas, your way of thinking. The traditions are kept in the language.
On the importance, beauty and wisdom of the language on Guam, I have gleaned many insights from the wonderful writing of Michael Lujan Bevacqua.

There are some 4,000 years of history in the Chamorro culture and broader question for the U.S. government is just what strategic ends are being served by the build-up.

The governor, in his speech, points out that Guåhan means, ‘We have’ – and we have the right to do so.” The context Camacho gives the name is one of strength, of assertion and bold activism, which is the right message to send in the face of the U.S. government's plans. Even though the Guam government appears to support the broad goal of the build-up, I can't help but wonder whether the governor's name change proposal is a sign, a signal of some doubt about it. It opens a new artery in the build-up debate to ask indirectly but nonetheless for the meaning of Guåhan and “We have” at a time when there appears much at risk.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

There is no Guam build-up battle in Washington

Guam's U.S. Rep. Madeleine Z. Bordallo made some comments on the Guam build-up at hearing this week of the House Armed Services Committee. Her office issued a press release about it.

I put in italics my take on her press statement.

Rep. Bordallo wrote:

Congresswoman Madeleine Z. Bordallo today addressed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing today in Washington, D.C. on the Fiscal Year 2011 defense budget.

It's to her credit that she attended this hearing. Her attendance was probably optional and Guam's build-up, within the scope of the overall defense budget, is a small line item and of little interest to most in Congress. Bordallo, in a manner, showed the flag.

During the hearing, Congresswoman Bordallo shared concerns raised by members of the community at recent town hall meetings regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

This means that the concerns on Guam about the build-up have reached her. Her comment may be a sign that she recognizes the opposition's depth.

Specifically, Congresswoman Bordallo expressed her continued opposition to the use of eminent domain by the Department of Defense (DoD) for land acquisition and suggested that the DoD should look into building within their existing footprint on Guam.

Is eminent domain the problem or the military's expansion of land it controls? It's really not clear from this, but suggesting that the U.S. build within its existing footprint is something even build-up supporters are likely to back.

Congresswoman Bordallo also expressed concerns regarding the aircraft carrier berthing and the potential damage to coral reefs during the dredging process.

The aircraft berthing is only one of many, many problems cited in the DEIS and by the build-up's opponents. Why focus on that one alone?

Secretary Gates stated that the Department of Defense would work with Guam stakeholders to “have transparency and for us [Department of Defense] to take into account the views of the people of Guam.”

Gates is blowing smoke. Of course the DOD will say that it will take into account the "views of the people of Guam."

Admiral Mullen further stated that these, “are major moves that we want to get right.”

'...get right,' in what respect?

“I along with Chairman Skelton and others have repeatedly stated that we need to get this military build-up done right,” Congresswoman Madeleine Z. Bordallo said today.

Bordallo is expressing clear support for the build-up.

Bordallo continues: “The Draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the Department of Defense, in its current form, insufficiently addresses concerns raised by our local government, our community, and stakeholders on Guam."

That's a strong statement, but it could have been much stronger. Bordallo could have raised the long list of issues created by the build-up. She could have told Gates of the deep fears that the build-up will erode the culture and quality of life on Guam. She could have suggested that the build-up may exceed the capacity of Guam, environmentally and culturally, to handle it.

I took this opportunity today to share some of these concerns with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Both Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen agreed that this military build-up must be done right, and most importantly, that the concerns of our community must be taken into account before we get to a Final Environmental Impact Statement.”

Bordallo is trying to represent the concerns of those who oppose the build-up without worrying its supporters. The opponents have little to hope for.

What Bordallo could have said is that the DOD's decision to allow only 90 days to comment on its 10,000 page build-up impact statement is insulting and a living example of U.S. colonialism, and something that no mainland community would tolerate.

She could have said:

"I urge you, Sec. Gates, to pull back on the build-up and to set aside the funding for it in the 2011 budget until independent environmental and economic studies are completed and the people of Guam have had a chance to really assess the build-up's impact. There is nothing so urgent that requires the people of Guam to give up so much so quickly and there is no reason why they should have to."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Obama's visit to Guam

President Barack Obama will visit Guam sometime in March and the importance of his visit to the military build-up can’t be understated. But it’s really hard to know what to make of his visit or how it might affect the build-up.

Obama’s visit may be very short, and his exposure to the build-up may be entirely from the military's perspective. His trip may be little more than a briefing and a meeting with the troops before moving on. Some of this may depend on whether the White House wants to get the president involved in the build-up debate, particularly since the Pentagon seems to be set on it no matter what issues or concerns are raised.

But the president will be likely briefed about the build-up, and hopefully his briefing papers will include this column in the Marianas Variety by Brian Schaible, a marine biologist, who succinctly outlined some of the many problems the build-up will create for Guam.

If Obama stays more than a few hours and meets with local officials, then I hope that this meeting includes people who have expressed concerns so that the president gets a complete view of the build-up's impact.

The U.S. officials in charge of the build-up on Guam are middle managers. They have no power of consequence. Their mission is to minimize obstacles and concerns to the build-up. My expectation is that the U.S. will make a number of adjustments to the build-up plan in response to opponents, but these changes will be mostly cosmetic and malleable. The only person with power to change this is President Obama, so that’s why it will be important he gets a full range of views.